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Can we leave Africa’s defence in the hands of others?

Ivor at large

Can we leave Africa’s defence in the hands of others?

If the scramble for anti-Covid vaccines was a wake-up call for Africa about continuing to rely on others to come to the rescue when needed, the Ukraine war is another red flag in the area of defence equipment. Can Africa afford to outsource this vital resource? asks Ivor Ichikowitz.

At the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, as the clamour to vaccinate the world reached fever pitch, Africa found itself being pushed to the margins. The pandemic had rendered some of the most vulnerable populations in the world even more at risk, because the industrialised north was hoarding vaccines.

Those countries which had enough stocks and had already vaccinated large proportions of their own people, held back, in case their citizens would need more. The vaccines that were eventually released for others were done so either at a handsome profit or grudgingly.

If you subscribe to the old adage that charity begins at home, it’s an understandable attitude, though hardly laudable. However, it blandly ignored the reality that when it comes to pandemics, like HIV / Aids, while we may not all be infected, we are all affected. 

As the scientists warned, as long as there are swathes of unvaccinated people, the virus will continue to mutate and – ironically, given the selfishness of the inoculated – render the available vaccines less effective.

For Africa, the lesson was simple and harsh; the continent has to develop its own centres of scientific excellence and vaccine manufacturing. The technology and the knowledge are there. South Africa alone had two factories making vaccines for clients in the northern hemisphere. Its scientists were world-beaters in genome sequencing and in fact, alerted the world to the emergence of the Omicron variant. It was an act of honesty and global citizenship that ironically, promptly saw South Africans banned at every northern point of entry! 

Africa is now embarked on an ambitious programme to make the continent self-sufficient in vaccine production. The danger of outsourcing such a vital necessity to others is too great. 

Ripples from Ukraine war

If the vaccine apartheid was a salient lesson for the continent, then the ongoing war in Ukraine is another. Once again, crises in the north are having direct and indirect effects on the south – and Africa in particular. 

Given the history of the continent – colonial and post-liberation – Russia’s misadventures have meant that the military support it gives to many African nations has been severely constrained. 

Russia supplies 49% of Africa’s imports of defence and military equipment: from armoured vehicles to tanks, fighter aircraft, combat helicopters and even warships, as well as small arms. According to Stellenbosch University’s Moses Khanyile, the biggest buyers are Algeria, Angola, Burkina Faso, Egypt, Ethiopia, Morocco and Uganda, but there are many others.

The upshot of Russia’s failing invasion of Ukraine is that the vital servicing of this equipment is not happening. Spare parts aren’t available because of the West’s isolation of Russia and training on the equipment isn’t happening. 

The net result is that some of the defence assets are rapidly becoming unserviceable and, when it comes to aircraft, no longer airworthy. We have seen precisely this in South Africa, where that country’s air force has been forced to ground its premium Gripen fighter aircraft capacity in its entirety because of a lack of funds to keep the aircraft serviced.

Two things will happen in Africa because of Russia’s inability to meet its contractual obligations. We know this because of our history. The continent is beset by conflict almost every day in one or more of the 54 countries that constitute it. There will now be even greater instability in countries that are already battling the twin dangers of cross-border insurgency and internal terror threats, because those countries will not have the means to maintain order if the threats begin to gain momentum. 

The second, more ominous prospect is that countries in need, which cannot be adequately serviced by their Russian suppliers will merely look elsewhere.

Nature abhors a vacuum and even more so when it comes to the defence of one’s sovereignty. In the past, Russia has stepped in where the US has fallen out with its client states.  As Khanyile notes, this happened in Egypt after the military coup in 2013 and Nigeria the following year, over that country’s human rights record. Russia stepped into the breach and supplied their needs. 

Now, with the effect of the war in Ukraine playing out in Africa, states which rely on Russian defence equipment will be easy targets to unscrupulous black marketeers, further endangering and blurring the balance of power, flooding the market with cheap second-hand equipment left over from the current geopolitical disasters of Iraq and Afghanistan. 

Law and order tools

I have always believed that legitimate governments need the necessary tools to maintain law and order and when they are deprived of those resources, chaos reigns. Africa’s history, especially post-liberation, proves this over and over again. 

The question now in the shadow of the war in Europe is why Africa should not develop its own pan-African defence manufacturing capability? The argument is exactly the same as the one it used to fight for the right to develop its own Covid-19 vaccines, free from the influences – and inherent threat – of outsourcing it to another.

Russia accounts for half the continent’s current defence imports, but the reality is that outside the increasingly limited original equipment manufacturing capacity in South Africa, there is little defence manufacturing capacity elsewhere in Africa. 

Almost every single African country is dependent upon a foreign country’s goodwill to maintain the defence equipment that the host country has bought. It is an untenable situation at every level. 

But it also represents a lost opportunity to develop and industrialise Africa, creating sustainable jobs and diversifying economies, because the defence and aerospace industry is an apex sector of the economy, attracting and retaining the best talent and continually at the forefront of innovation.

There is a tendency to fixate on the munitions aspect of the defence and aerospace environment and yet conveniently ignore that the internet and the Global Positioning System (GPS), which are internationally indispensable today, were originally military-specific applications. 

GPS was conceived as a military tool more than 60 years ago to track submarines and missiles; today it’s an integral, almost invisible, part of the back-end of ride-hailing apps and remote food delivery. 

The internet was an experiment to let the US military communicate in the aftermath of a nuclear Armageddon; today it hosts everything from social media to telemedicine, all accessible from hand-held or even wrist-worn devices. 

Drones, which have been weaponised for use in asymmetric warfare, have also been repurposed to deliver life-saving medicines to remote areas or as crop sprayers, as a far cheaper alternative to aircraft or on land difficult to access by air.

The defence and aerospace industry truly is an example of developing and manufacturing swords and then beating them into ploughshares. But to enjoy and exploit the peace dividend, there has to be peace. There can’t be any when legitimate authorities have their hands tied because the equipment they have actually bought and paid for and now need to use, is not properly maintained or their operators are not trained – because either it doesn’t suit the third parties who supplied them, or they have bigger issues to worry about.

That is servitude, just in another guise. The only way to stop this is for countries, or in this case an entire continent, to take charge of their own defence needs once and for all. It’s time for Africa to develop an indigenous pan-African defence and aerospace manufacturing capability to protect, defend and nurture its natural resources and its people. n

Ivor Ichikowitz is an African industrialist and philanthropist. 

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Written by Ivor Ichikowitz

Ivor Ichikowitz is an African industrialist and philanthropist. He is the Founder of the Ichikowitz Family Foundation and the African Oral History Archive.

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